MOSCOW - Russia's Foreign Ministry has accused a former U.S. Marine currently facing charges of espionage of faking health problems and lying about his poor treatment while in custody - comments the U.S. Embassy in Moscow called "pulp fiction."
The diplomatic back and forth involves Paul Whelan, who was arrested for spying in December 2018 after allegedly accepting classified materials on a computer flash drive in a central Moscow hotel.
The case has proven an additional irritant to U.S.-Russian relations that already are strained by events in Syria, Ukraine, and Moscow's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Whelan, who holds passports from Britain, Canada and Ireland, in addition to the United States, has repeatedly denied the charges. He insists he was in Moscow for a friend's wedding and accepted the flash drive from a Russian acquaintance without knowing or ever viewing its contents.
In occasional court appearances and through his lawyer, Whelan has consistently claimed mistreatment by prison officials and Russian security services, including physical threats and a lack of medical care during his detention over the past year.
A statement posted to Russia's Foreign Ministry website addressed those claims.
The statement accused Whelan of fabricating the complaints as part of "yet another mass-scale disinformation campaign aimed at smearing Russia's image." It also said American "controlled media" had artificially "created noise around this person" by disseminating numerous falsehoods about Whelan's case.
The ex-Marine, the statement noted, had been caught "red-handed," with his "spying activities fully documented."
The statement also insisted Whelan had regular visits "every week" from U.S. Embassy personnel, as well other countries from which he holds passports.
The Russian Foreign Ministry noted that Whelan received medical care upon request but had declined a "minor surgery" at a Russian hospital, opting for medication, instead.
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"So, there is no threat to Whelan's health," concluded the statement. "As for feigned illnesses to which he resorts from time to time, this is apparently part of U.S. intelligence agent training."
U.S. Embassy press spokeswoman in Moscow, Rebecca Ross, responded with an extended tweet that called the Foreign Ministry's version "pulp fiction," while presenting a starkly different narrative.
Ross condemned Russia's depiction of Whelan's health, arguing it was, in fact, "deteriorating." She said Russia had not allowed Whelan a single phone call to family since his detention.
Ross also noted that "no evidence of any crime has been provided to date," while Whelan - who speaks little or no Russian - had been kept uninformed about trial proceedings.
"How is Paul supposed to understand what he is being accused of if he can't even read it?" she asked. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should stop distorting the facts. #PaulWhelan is not a spy. Still no evidence. Still no calls to his family. Enough is enough. Let Paul go home," she said.
Ordeal nears end
After nearly a year of pre-trial hearings largely closed to the public, the espionage case against Whelan appears now headed toward a final conclusion.
In its statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed that an investigation by Russia's Federal Security Services was now complete, but it accused Whelan of "deliberately drawing out" the process with a delayed response to an indictment.
Yet at his most recent court hearing, Whelan was only allowed to attend by video simulcast and was seen holding an illegible handwritten sign.
Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, later called for his client to be included in a wider prisoner swap, given his various passports.
"Paul is a citizen of four countries. None of them has asked to organize his exchange, yet," said Zherebenkov. "Take the initiative, gentlemen!"
Whelan has called on President Donald Trump to intervene on his behalf, asking him "to tweet your intentions" about what Whelan has called "the Moscow goat rodeo."
If convicted of espionage, Whelan faces the possibility of 10 to 20 years in prison.